As Ineos prepares to launch its sponsorship of Britain’s leading cycling team at next week’s Tour de Yorkshire, an opponent of the company’s fracking plans reports on his own ride through the region’s shale gas licences.
Amateur cyclist Stuart Leach, who lives in Ryedale, visited 284 towns and villages in North Yorkshire to tell people about proposals to frack for gas.
In this guest post, he explains why he did it and what he learned from his 785-mile journey.
In recent years the area of North Yorkshire covered by Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences, known as PEDLs, has greatly increased, to around 2,800km2.
These licences allow companies to search for and extract oil and gas, traditionally using conventional methods. However, the option of using unconventional methods, such as fracking, is being sought by the industry and encouraged by the government.
For some time, I had thought of using my hobby of cycling as a way to explore these areas, many of which were unfamiliar, and to get a feel for the vastness of the 2,800 km2 affected. I had never visited many of the 300 or so towns and villages in this area and just needed an incentive to do so.
A year ago, in May 2018, I was presented with just the right motivation.
A written ministerial statement on energy was issued by the government, proposing that exploratory drilling for shale gas could become Permitted Development, without the need for a planning application.
It also proposed that a development could progress by considering it as National Significant Infrastructure without meaningful input from local authorities.
Within two days of the announcement, I had produced a basic poster (left) and set out on the first of many rides, pinning it onto notice boards of affected villages.
The licensed areas
In northern England, there are licensed areas in North, East, South and West Yorkshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Cheshire.
To have a challenging yet realistic target, I limited myself to North Yorkshire and the licensed areas that are in the eastern half of the county.
The North Yorkshire PEDLs spread continuously east-west, from Speeton, on the coast beyond Filey, for 41 miles to Carlton Husthwaite, near Easingwold. North to south, they stretch about 60 miles from Great Ayton down to Kirk Smeeton.
The whole of The Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (204 Km2) and 538 km2 of the North Yorkshire Moors National park are licensed.
The licences contain the market towns of Helmsley, Easingwold , Kirkbymoorside and Malton with Norton, which has a growing reputation for artisan and locally produced food. Pickering is famous for its steam railway and vintage weekends and there are the popular seaside towns of Scarborough and Filey, with their stretches of heritage coastline. The entire historic City of York is located within a licensed area.
Welcome to Yorkshire
Many of my cycle routes could have been taken from a Welcome to Yorkshire” itinerary.
They pass through major attractions, like Hutton-le-Hole, Rosedale Abbey, Farndale (famous for The daffodil walk) and Dalby Forest outdoor centre.
There are many country houses and estates open to the public, including Castle Howard (TV and film location for Brideshead Revisited), Duncombe Park, Scampston Hall, Hovingham Hall and the National Trust properties of Nunnington Hall and Beningborough Hall.
I passed the pub, just within a licensed area, voted in 2018 as the world’s best restaurant.
I cycled through The Yorkshire Wolds, with its medieval villages and landscapes which inspired art by David Hockney and Robert Fuller.
The most northerly ride took me into Captain Cook country and the beautiful Danby Dale.
I believe these and the other numerous attractions that I passed risk harm to their reputation if a fracking industry develops in North Yorkshire.
Pedl and pedal facts
Planning the rides
As a recreational cyclist, I typically set out from home once a week, covering 40-50 miles.
I realised that it would be realistic during one summer to cover all the licensed areas and pass through all of towns and villages in them.
I devised 19 rides, varying from 15 to 63 miles.
The total distance was 785 miles, just under the distance from London to Edinburgh and back.
Posters and more
I aimed to place my poster in at least one position in each village or town (totalling 284) and, wherever possible, on the community notice board.
The poster evolved over the months. Sometimes, I emphasised the proximity of protected areas along the route. Later editions referred to the Let Communities Decide campaign.
Sometimes, I distributed additional material along the route about seismic surveys, fracking information sheets or campaign material.
I hoped that people who see the notices would realise that they lived in a licensed area and be spurred on to research what this could meant and discuss their findings with others, maybe even lobby their parish, town or county councillors.
People I met
There was, though, no substitute for getting out and about among communities and cycling is a very good way to do this.
In my travels, I encountered many people. Most expressed some concern about the permitted development proposals and some knowledge of fracking, especially the experience with the KM8 well at Kirby Misperton in Ryedale.
There was a church coffee morning in Long Marston, where one of the ladies volunteered to place a poster at the other end of her village.
At Hunmanby Gap, a knowledgeable car park attendant allowed me to put one on his shed and took some leaflets. Then there were the ladies preparing tea for the cricketers at Bolton Percy who, before I corrected them, did not believe they were within a licensed area.
The most fortunate encounter was with a resident of Silpho, in The North Yorkshire Moors National Park, who turned out to be a parish councillor. When I told him about the permitted development proposals, he said he would raise it at the parish council meeting that week.
Looking back at my cycling adventure, I am reminded at how very fortunate I am to live among such wonderful and highly varied countryside.
It is no wonder that, through hosting the Grand Depart of the Tour de France in 2014 and The Tour de Yorkshire every year since, the country has become a favourite cycling destination for many.
Depending on mood or fitness, you can choose a flat or very hilly route to suit and it is always possible to escape the heavy traffic by using the extensive network of country lanes. How very different this could be in the future if fracking became established.
I marked a 1:50,000 map with colour stickers for all the places I had put up posters. By the time I finished, I noticed an illuminating and also sobering coincidence.
The 280 or so dots located within the 2,800 sq km of licensed area works out at 10 dots per 100 sq km.
This coincides with a maximum density of well pads proposed in the North Yorkshire Joint Minerals and Waste Plan, which when adopted will influence fracking development decisions.
The location of my dots would be unlikely to coincide with the location of well pads, because my dots were centred on towns and villages. The well pads were likely be away from these centres, but the overall visual effect would be similar and quite startling.
But the map illustrated how shale gas sites could dominate North Yorkshire.
The proliferation of well pad could be lower, because of safeguards in the minerals plan. These include 500m minimum setback distances from homes and a local definition of fracking that would exclude some operations in the National Park and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
But, if permitted development were allowed, then the number of sites could be very much greater than the density of my dots.
Whichever case is adopted, North Yorkshire as a cycling experience could be vastly different to that now.
Cyclists always notice the contrast between a main road with heavy traffic, including HGV’s creating hazards, noise and exhaust fumes to that of back roads.
With fracking located in rural areas, only accessible via narrow country lanes, the presence of the associated traffic will kill the enjoyment for cyclists. Will our part of North Yorkshire retain its appeal to cyclists? Will the tourism industry in general be negatively affected? I think there can be no doubt that it will be. Would there be anything left when the gas industry has departed for the tourists to return for?
What the future will bring is uncertain. All I can say is that should KM8 be followed by several more fracking sites and ultimately the maximum exploitation of a gas field, then I will have cycled within a few miles of every future location. I will have passed along the same roads that will experience thousands of truck movements.
From the information I distributed, I feel that I have done my best to raise awareness in communities in North Yorkshire’s licences.
I hope my publicity efforts will prompt some people in the places I have visited to find out about fracking and how it will transform their area. If they don’t like the prospect then I hope they will become active and strongly voice their concerns in every way they can.
Stuart Leach lives near the market town of Helmsley, in the Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the INEOS licence area PEDL280. He began to look into fracking when seismic surveys were undertaken near his home in 2014. After attending a local meeting, he joined Frack Free Ryedale and became a founder member of GASCON, the local villages group. A keen cyclist, he has travelled more than 2,000 miles distributing information about fracking. In 2017, he instigated the “Tour de Frack”, cycling 120 miles between Preston New Road near Blackpool and the KM8 well site in Ryedale, to help raise money towards protection camps.
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